Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Italian Army's Greatest Achievement on British Soil During WWII

Italian PoWs
In World War II the Italians achieved little of merit on the battlefield. Despite having 20 years of Fascist rule to harden their bodies and minds to turn them into ruthless fighting machines, they tended to surrender in droves when not backed up by their formidable German allies. 

However, one major achievement they can claim was pulling off what was by far the largest POW escape in Britain. The site of this daring escapade in Italian military history was Camp 14 at Doonfoot, located on the south side of the town of Ayr in Scotland.

While most Italian POWs were judged to be a low security risk and were allowed out of the camps to supply much-needed labour on farms, the several hundred POWs at Doonfoot continued to be loyal to Mussolini's Fascist government right up to the end of the war, and were regarded as troublemakers. For this reason they were more heavily guarded. 

As a general rule, the more fanatical PoWs—whether German Nazis or Italian Fascists—were housed in camps further North. Doonfoot with its Fanatical Italian PoWs, fits into this pattern. Accordingly the camp had a razor wire perimeter fence, which was lit by powerful searchlights mounted on watchtowers and patrolled by armed guards,. But there was one major weaknessit was built on relatively sandy soil. 

PoW camps in the UK in WWII. Doonfoot is
the single dot on the West coast of Scotland.
Like much of the Ayrshire coast, the land there is a "raised beach"—land raised up from the sea since the end of the Ice Age and the melting of the glacial ice that had formerly weighed Scotland down. It is for the same reason that the land here is ideal for links golf courses like nearby Turnberry and Troon, where the British Open is occasionally held. 

Among the prisoners, the dominant figure was Lieutenant Pietro Graff, a 43-year-old officer in Italy’s elite Folgore (Lightning) parachute division and a committed Fascist. He was reported to be the driving force of the escape. 

Another import factor, according to at least one prisoner, was a secret radio, with which the prisoners listened to broadcasts from Italy. In the period leading up to the escape—late 1944the news from Italy could not have been good, but when the guards discovered the radio and confiscated it, this seemed to harden the resolve of the the prisoners to make their escape.
"The Commandant of our camp has deprived us of our only enjoyable pastime, the radio, the only tie uniting us to the Italians beyond the Alps, who are still fighting with our German comrades," an unnamed soldier wrote to his family. "This is why 96 soldiers and an officer escaped from the camp."
After weeks of digging, the prisoners had excavated a lengthy tunnel that came up well beyond the wire, and were ready to make their big break. The night chosen was Friday, December 15, 1944, which, interestingly enough, was the night before the Germans launched their final offensive of the War, the famous Ardennes Offensive that led to the Battle of the Bulge. This coincidence has led to speculation that the break-out may have been coordinated in some way to add to the confusion caused by the shock German offensive.

On the night of the escape, weather conditions were freezing and snowy, but undaunted by the grim Scottish weather, 97 Italians POWs, led by Lieutenant Pietro Graff, made their way through the tunnel to the chilly embrace of freedom. No other PoW escape in Britain came close to the Doonfoot breakout in terms of numbers.

However, once out in the open and chilled to the bone, the PoWs had no real plan of what to do next. Most of them just wandered around aimlessly until they were rounded up. One suspects that most of them were probably more than happy to go back to the camp. 

Many were picked up in the nearby fishing port of Dunure, where the German or Italian navies had failed to make an appearance. Others made it as far as the villages of Maybole and Dalrymple, while four brave escapees made it as far as Newton Mearns, on the outskirts of Glasgow and home to Scotland's largest Jewish community. .

By the end of that first day of the escape, 47 PoWs had been recaptured, the next day saw a further 30 returned to the camp, while the rest were picked up soon after. One group hid in a wood at Fisherton, but gave themselves away when they started a fire to keep warm.
"The first intimation we got of their being there at all was that of smoke coming up through the trees," explained a policeman with the search team. "We called on the Italians to come out, but instead they went back into the wood. The military fired two bursts from a Sten gun over their heads, and thereupon all six of them came out quickly."
One of the last to be recaptured was Lieutenant Graff, who, together with a sergeant-major, planned to stow away on trains and head to the south coast of England. On the 21st of Decemberafter five days on the runthey were recaptured when they were spotted hiding in a goods wagon at Dalrymple's tiny railway station by the driver of a passing train. 

Thus ended the Great Italian Escape of WW2.

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